The Climbing Tree

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In my early childhood, one of my favorite places in the world was at the top of a pine tree on the edge of the field behind our house. This tree was probably pretty small, but in my memory it loomed over me. I remember the first time I made it to the top, I felt as if I’d been climbing for an hour and that my head was almost in the clouds. At the top of the tree, I found where a couple of branches had made a saddle, and from then on, I’d climb up, wedge myself into the branches, lean back, and watch those clouds. Sometimes they were dragons for me to conquer, sometimes ships to sail, sometimes castles where a great king (my first image of God) lived.

Sometimes the wind blew, rocking me back and forth. Usually, I could hear the river at the foot of the hill. As I grew older, I’d wonder who or what made these clouds and the wind and the river, which led to curiosity about who or what made me.

I thought of “my tree,” the other day as I stood at the foot of a tall (and this one is tall) pine tree in the woods near our house, looking up at my eight-year-old grandson climbing from branch to branch. But while part of me was filled with nostalgia, part of me was scared to death. What if he slipped? My god, he might impale himself on that sharp limb below him. Oh, shit! Is that next branch safe?

Well, he didn’t try to make it to the top and he came down safely and I didn’t say anything, so we were both happy, but on the way home I got to thinking about how fearful I’ve become these days.

I don’t like it.

I’ve written before in these blogs about fear. In one (https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/07/) I talked about fear being an acronym for “false evidence appearing real.” These days, however, my greatest fears are various manifestations of something very real: my mortality.

These fears probably began with the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie thirty-two years ago—at least, that’s when death for me became a reality instead of a concept. But it wasn’t until twenty years later that the deaths of other people I knew and liked and loved started falling on me, first, as an occasional raindrop, now steady precipitation—my classmates Marty and Tom, Laurie’s mother, my wife’s parents, my mother, more and more classmates like Roger and Scott, Diane and Audrey. Then, two years ago, I, whose cholesterol levels, heart rate, and weight were all great, needed bypass surgery. Three months later, my former brother-in-law, who walked, swam, played tennis, and lifted weights, apparently in perfect health, suddenly dropped dead of the same kind of heart blockage that I’d had.

Not only did that make death real, it made death something over which I—always a control freak—have no control over. And that’s probably what really frightens me.

I realize the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning are all the bad things that might happen today to me or to someone I love. Will that ache in my shoulder turn out to be a heart attack? My wife’s getting these serious pains in her knee. What if she has Parkinson’s or becomes wheelchair bound? The wind’s blowing—what happens if that tree in the back yard falls on the house and kills Mary Lee or me? I can’t find my keys again. Does that mean Alzheimer’s?

Now, so far none of that has happened. My life is good. I often go to bed at night grateful for the day. Why then can’t I wake up in the morning feeling the same way?

I suspect I’m still fighting being mortal, still trying to do the things I used to be able to do, still attempting to control the things—like my body—I used to be able to control. I need to be spending a little more time with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

So then, what can I change? What do I have control over?

I do have some control over how I die: my state has a “Death with Dignity” law. But at this point, I’m more interested in how I live until that time, and I don’t want to spend my remaining days awfulizing about all the nasty things that could happen until my death.

Maybe what I need to be asking as time grows short and I age and break down is what’s most important to me? What do I want to be able to do as long as possible?

Well, one of the things that’s important to me is to be able to look at life the same way I did when I used to climb that pine tree. I had a destination. I looked up instead of down. I didn’t mind if I got splinters or a little pitch on my hands. And once I went as far as I could, I used my imagination and wondered about creation.

Okay, I can’t go as far as I could, even a year ago. (Have I told you about my heel spur?) But I can work on looking up instead of down (or as I age, ahead instead of back. I still think most of my fears of the future go back to anxieties passed on to me by my parents). I can still have a destination (a word, remember, that means purpose as well as place)—an essay or poem to write, a book to read—even if, like Stephen Hawking, I might have to write on a computer by twitching my cheeks, or “read” through audiobooks. I don’t mind a little pain or not looking young any more as long as I can still be as curious about the changes in my grandchildren as I was about the changing shapes of clouds. I can still find beauty and wonder in nature (I just stopped writing to take a picture of our azalea bush), even if I might have to ask someone someday to wheel me outside to experience it.

That’s all worth looking forward to. Worth living for.

I think it’s time to stop asking myself in the morning, “What can go wrong today?” and start asking, “What is my destination today? What can I be curious about? Wonder at?”

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